Renowned defensive guru Cody Alexander says there’s a better way to get a read on opposing passers than using traditional charts.
At nearly all my stops, from the Big 12 to the cauldron of Texas high school football, I’ve been left to my own devices for building the secondary’s gameplan. One of my biggest takeaways? You’re better off ditching the traditional 16-square passing chart that tracks where quarterbacks throw. It’s an antiquated way of tracking where offenses are attacking through the air.
Like its cousin in the run-gap chart, the passing chart has seen better days. Offenses are less about structure and more about matchups when it comes to the passing game. Some offenses keep their personnel right and left, while others have specific positions and move players around. Each week you could be looking at a vastly different process if you use the traditional passing chart to track throws.
Because offenses are personnel-based, a defensive coach needs to tweak the way they view an offense’s passing game. For me, I use four specific columns that I combine to get a vastly better picture of an opponent’s passing game:
- Backside Concept
- Deep Shot
Outside of “Target”, all the columns I use to break down an opponent’s passing game I created with a custom column in Hudl.
Passing is such a different animal than the run game. Route combinations can vary from team to team, as well as formations. In a run game, the offense is attacking one area of the box, or a point of attack. Some runs use split action or have reads away from the run action, but for the most part Power is Power, Counter is Counter, and Zone is Zone.
Though there are different personnel and slight tweaks in the blocking based on front structure, you can usually identify the run game relatively well. There are usually only one to two (if a “read”) players who could carry the ball. In the passing game, that number can jump to five!
Developing a system to concisely break down an opponent’s passing game is crucial for the success of a modern defense. The pass is becoming ever more increasingly important, even at the lower levels. A defensive staff needs a clearer picture of the routes being run each week to prepare for the week.
Some coaches only tag the route that the quarterback throws. Doing that only gives the staff one-fifth of a chance of understanding the opponent’s intent. If the route was a fade by the “X” receiver, then yes, this system works. Often, only tagging the passing strength or one receiver gives the defense an incomplete view of what’s going on.
(In my book, Breaking Down Your Offensive Opponent, I illustrated that some offenses use a split-field, full field, or targeted (one-route) approach to their passing game. The breakdown should be able to handle that.)
Back Side Concept (B/S)
When I break down an opponent’s passing game, I generally put the passing strength (most receivers side) passing concept in the “Off Play” column. If it is a full-field concept like “Shallow” or “Mesh”, I will put the name of the concept in the “Off Play”.
I created this “B/S Concept” column originally to give me an idea of what routes were being run during run plays. When I got to Baylor in 2011, RPOs were beginning to take over the Big 12 and we needed a way to track what runs were going with what passing concepts. The “B/S Concept” tab allowed me to have a more robust idea of what was going on during RPOs.
Fast-forward to today, and most offenses are no longer running mirrored route concepts outside of stops, sticks, or fade-out (FO). Most offenses have moved away from mirrored concepts to manipulate the coverage. The column allows the staff to understand the full picture of the field instead of one receiver’s route or half the field.
When developing a game plan and play cards, it’s important to understand how an offense attacks the full plane of the field. If you label only one route you need to ask yourself, “Am I only drawing one route on the play card?”
This column can also be a great place to leave “notes'' in your breakdown. For instance, if an offense uses the running back out of the backfield on a wheel route, I can label that easily in the “B/S Concept'' tab. Doing this allows me to then create specific cut-ups and serves as a reminder of how the offense is trying to attack opponents.
Combined with the “Off Play” column, the defense now has a full picture view of the offense’s passing game.
Some coaches only tag the route that the quarterback throws. Doing that only gives the staff one-fifth of a chance of understanding the opponent’s intent.
Deep Shot (DS)
It is important for a defense to track when, where, and who the offense is attempting to target on a deep pass, or what I call a “shot.” A deep pass is any pass that is thrown 20 or more air yards down the field. This is different from an explosive pass. A deep shot is trying to blow the top off the secondary and create a big chunk play.
Understanding how an offense is developing their game plan for chunk plays is crucial. Combined with Hudl Beta, a defensive staff can quickly see what concepts the shots are coming from, where on the field they are being thrown, and what down and distance is usually involved.
I create a “DS” cut-up for my defensive backs every week that features all the shots taken in our breakdown and sort them by formation, play, and target. Doing it this way gives me and my players an understanding of when to expect the deep ball.
This replaces the need for a passing chart. By charting the full field concept, a coach can now identify cleanly where the ball is going for each concept. I label my targets as position names (Z, X, S, A, Y, etc.) but you could easily number them 1-5 from left to right. I prefer letter tags because it matches well with the formations.
To me, the “Target” column is where the meat of the breakdown comes in. Once you have broken down all the concepts, the “Target” column unlocks the intent of the offense. Where is the ball going, and to whom?
A 16-square passing chart may give you some indication of where a quarterback struggles, or the receiver that is most often targeted, but combining the previous columns with the “Target” column gives the data clarity. The “Target” column puts the why behind where the ball is going. Is it a match up issue, or are they attacking a specific coverage?
The “Target” column puts the why behind where the ball is going.
I leave this blank if the quarterback wasn’t pressured and threw from a clean pocket. If they scramble before they throw the ball, I’ll place an “S” in the column. Because breaking the pocket changes the intent of the QB, I like to see if there is a specific receiver the quarterback targets.
This column also helps me create a “Scramble Plan” to tell my defensive backs how the offense attacks scramble situations. Do the receivers take off vertically, work back to the sideline, or back to the quarterback? These are all important for understanding how a quarterback reacts under duress.
Another use for this column is identifying what direction the quarterback attacks. In many cases, they prefer to scramble to their dominant hand side. If this is the case, a defense can use that data to create a rush plan to force the quarterback to scramble away from their comfort zone or favorite receiver.
This column also assists the breakdown process by cleaning up any “trash” in the Target column by giving the coach a quick way to cut out the scramble passes to gain a clear picture of a concept's target. This is all made easy with the use of Hudl Beta and can be done with a couple clicks.
The passing game tends to be a daunting task for many coaching staffs because there is so much information. I never want to develop a column or breakdown process without a purpose. I’ve used these four columns as I developed my process over a decade of coaching, and it’s served me well when developing game plans.
Utilizing Hudl Beta in recent years has made the processes even easier. The ability to work smarter, not harder is what all staffs should attempt to achieve. Using these columns will put you and your staff in the right direction.
Cody Alexander has authored five books and held court at Blitz ‘21 as part of a defensive roundtable. A former graduate assistant at Baylor University, where he was on staff for three bowl appearances and a Big 12 championship, Alexander has turned his efforts to Texas high school football, where his teams have been a Class 5A D-II area finalist three times. Be sure to follow his X&O’s deep dives on his Twitter account as well as his popular Match Quarters newsletter for even more food for thought. To see his entire breakdown process, check out his CoachTube series that shows you how to approach an opponent breakdown.